Sanjukta Panigrahi, one of India's most renowned classical dancers, is a woman whose commitment to her art form reveals itself in every square inch of her person. The slightest arch of her eyebrow has as much significance as the most emphatic pounding of her feet into the floor. Her gift for absolute stillness is as great as her ability to move at alarmingly rapid speeds. Panigrahi even uses her sultry good looks in diverse and effective ways; within a single dance, she can play seductive maiden, powerful ruler and devoted wife, all by means of subtle shifts in facial expression and gesture.
Panigrahi dances in the sensuous Odissi style, one rarely showcased in this country. Hence her performance Saturday night at the Commerce Department auditorium was a well attended and much lauded affair. The crowd did not seem to mind the lack of a printed program, the slipshod lighting or the appalling sound system, which turned all verbal explanations to mush. This writer, however, could only guess at the specifics of the stories the dancer told, and attempted to separate Panigrahi from these detrimental production values.
As incense burned and singer Ragunath Panigrahi (the dancer's husband) and his musical ensemble created alternately dreamy and rhythmically feverish sounds, his wife turned the stage into a temple, a palace, a jungle. Dressed in a lemon-yellow (and later a crimson) sari, her raven hair braided and topped with an elaborate headdress and her body festooned with numerous bangles, she could have been some exquisite temple sculpture come to life.
Panigrahi started with a welcoming solo, during which she sent flower petals streaming from her palms. Her eyes rolled in myriad directions, her hands pressed together in prayer, her heels dug deeply into the floor. Each dance -- whether an invocation to the gods, a narrative or an abstract piece -- shared many qualities. First and foremost was the absolute integration of movement and music, which made one doubly aware of the intricacy of Indian rhythms. No less enthralling was Panigrahi's exquisite sense of line and focus, her magical head isolations, her swinging hips and snaking arms. Even the way she pursed her scarlet lips was special. To experience this luminous performer in motion was to see layer upon layer of cultural history taking shape in a single living being.